Bondi Beach, Sydney, NSW c. 2002

Mon, 20 Mar 2006 8:20 AM (GMT+0000)

I used to think that solving a jigsaw puzzle was a good metaphor for learning and experience. It's very hard to attach new concepts to our partially-trained brains if we don't have a few edge pieces laid out or some gaps waiting to be filled with new nubs. I don't like that metaphor anymore. Jigsaws are so two-dimensional, so rigid, so finite. There are so many ways to assimilate new pieces - they can't possibly be destined to fit into some pre-defined order. The same piece can totally change shape from the first time we pick it up to the next time we try to attach some new experience to it. Learning is a such an interconnected, nebulous, woven, five-dimensional, omni-directional process that the best we can do is focus on compartmental knowledge and dubious causality to try to understand how it works. It's snowing in San Francisco. Did a butterfly flap its wings in New York?

I've nearly drowned in a deluge of memory in the past few weeks. Memory motif. Memory theme. Memory meme. I can't stop thinking about it. I can't forget it. I can't even get a Lionel Ritchie song out of my head that I heard on Friday morning. It started with a harmless cleaning project, and ever since then everything seems to be piling into that part of my brain like it's a clown car.

I picked up a book in EWR claiming to contain the best Sci-Fi short stories of the last twenty years. I think the editor purposefully tried to avoid mainstream authors. I had probably read about a third of the stories published in other anthologies, but I was starting to sense a theme in the ones I read on the plane. Gibson's Winter Market was selling dreams. Walter Jon Williams' Daddy's World grafted living memories onto processor cycles. Greg Bear's Blood Work built consciousness into protein. Crowley's Snow was in the book, but I remembered already reading it; it's a story about random-access video recordings of the dead. Normally it would have seemed strange that an anthology with Snow would also have Marusek's The Wedding Album since it is also a story about the sadness of living in the past. This month it's only strange if something doesn't make me think about memory.

I had never thought about what our memories would be like from the perspective of the memories themselves. Marusek imagines a future when our recordings for posterity are living, evolving snapshots of our entire being, rather than just two static jigsaw dimensions. Instead of a bride looking at her wedding album, she visits a virtual copy of her younger self while she's fitted for the gown, receiving wedding gifts, and posing for the camera. The younger is forced to re-live this same day for eternity. These snapshots, being more or less complete human beings, are self-aware. They realize that they are only copies who effectively have no future of their own. How bleak would it be to live only for that one slim sliver of existence?

I watched 50 First Dates again on HBO last week. I had been starting to feel like my long-lost past was going to be free; it could live for itself, or at least wink out of existence. Seeing that movie again, I realized the puzzle had changed around my concept of living in the past. I still think there is a somewhat arbitrary statute of limitations on reliving our memories. However, unless we're physically incapable of holding onto them we will always have them triggered for us even if we deliberately avoid reliving them. Without them, existence is practically devoid of meaning. How much bleaker would it be if one's past lived only in the minds of others? Or not at all?

I walked up the hill next to Dolores Park again on Friday. Now I have two overlapping memories there, and the two women I share them with share a startling number of other neurons, too. The first will probably never trigger them again herself, but if she hadn't arranged them just the way they were, it would have been just another park, just another train, and just another stunning view of San Francisco the second time around.

I'd like to meet that first memory. He's busy being impressed by a tight parallel parking job on a steep grade in a stickshift. In his near future he's anticipating a sunset picnic and a buzzer-beating consummation that never happened in the last few hours before he was shuttled back to SFO. He's going to have a tough few weeks after that, but he won't remember the hard part at all in six months, despite the fact that he'll be able to read about it.

I want to tell him about the next time he's on that hill, especially about the woman he's with. I want him to look up at Sutro Tower and show him how the world will shift around it on such a grand scale that even the rotation of the galactic night starscape on its neverending procession will seem insignificant. I know when he looks at it, he already thinks of it like the pole star - a static guide through the maze and disorder of San Francisco. It will become his portal, too. It will be his trigger, twirling rings of memory deftly between its three spiky fingers. It will be the symbol for all the reasons why he should miss that next flight, but also for the pain of shutting his own heart in another door that may never open again.

I want to tear up his tenuous roots and get him rolling west; finish that wall, refinish the kitchen, get that lead anchor on the market and get ready to jump on the merry-go-round. It was a narrow window last time during which he was thinking that maybe it's time for another change, but I want him to start chasing the wheel so the next time life rolls around he'll already be up and running and ready to jump on. Maybe he'll still blow his second chance, but I'll be damned if I'm going to let him miss the third.

I'm not afraid of living in the past anymore. I've seen enough bittersweet memories fade and leave behind just those transparent sugar crystals that wink into view under only very specific light. I know that no matter how fresh and raw and painful or beautiful the recent past, it will all eventually render down and disappear.

I'm most afraid now of living in the future. Maybe I should have locked the door after all, to try to cap the number of times I'm going to navigate by the flagship triple mast before it stops conducting the lightning right down through the depths of my synapses to all the places reserved for her. I'm afraid of all of the trains of thought that will pull into her station - not the ones that will rumble out over the crumbling tracks we have already laid together on the way to wherever they are going, but the ones that coast out over thin air on all of the infinite lines that may never be railed and tied.


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